Thrissur: Throbbing to its own rhythm

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover rare art forms and the many sides of Thrissur that are overshadowed by the pomp of its main festival, the Thrissur Pooram

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Green faced Theyyam gods posed for the camera, Kavadi artists swirled giddily and two legged tigers prowled the Thekkinnakadu Maidan. Thrissur Peruma, a cultural showcase of the district organized by DTPC (District Tourism Promotion Council), was in full swing. People had gathered in droves to witness Pulikali, the fiery tiger dance, usually performed during Onam. Troupes of men wearing tiger masks paraded the streets, flaunting elaborate bodypaint and striated limbs; their torsos and bellies gleaming with tiger faces. In a blaze of orange, yellow, black and white, the folk dancers mimicked hunting scenes and feline behaviour to entertain the crowds. At newly refurbished performance spaces like the scenic hilltop venue of Vilangankunnu 7km from town, we witnessed Kerala’s riveting traditions of music and dance, as Thrissur took strident steps to reclaim its position as a cultural beacon.

Amidst all the drama, the city’s most famous landmark, the Vaddakkunathan Temple, stood ceremoniously aloof. Believed to have been consecrated by the legendary sage Parasurama, the shrine venerates the patron deity that gave the city and district its name. Thirusivaperur, as it was earlier known, translates to “the sacred city of Shiva”. Hundreds of years ago, Thekkinnakadu maidan, the open ground surrounding the temple was a teak forest where wild animals roamed and kings would order soldiers to banish criminals and traitors to this dreaded terrain. Today, the famous Swaraj Round or Thrissur Round girdles the 65 acre ground, making it the largest roundabout in India. As many as 17 roads including 9 main roads radiate towards the different corners of the city. Not surprisingly, the key activities of business, commerce, politics and culture converge around this junction that forms the geographical nucleus of the city.

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Though Trivandrum is the state capital, all the Kala Akademis are located in Thrissur, making it the cradle of Kerala’s rich culture. At Kodungallur to the south, both Christianity and Islam docked at Indian shores in their years of infancy – from St Thomas’ arrival in 52 AD and his first baptism at Palayur to the Cheraman Juma Masjid, the first mosque established in India in 629 AD. While all mosques customarily face the direction of Mecca, this one faces east and even houses a rare ornate brass oil lamp. For eons, the historic land sagely observed the reign and decline of mighty dynasties – after the Cheras, the Kulashekaras in 12th Century followed by the Zamorins in 14th century, and the scramble for power when Haider Ali, Tipu Sultan and European powers like the Portuguese, Dutch and British entered the fray.

However, it was Raja Rama Varma IX (1751-1805) who earned the title of Sakthan Thampuran, the Ruler of Cochin who became the architect of modern Thrissur. The shrewd and powerful ruler consolidated his power over agriculture, trade and commerce and went on to build a well-planned city around the Vaddakkunathan Temple besides exquisite palaces, water tanks, temples, granaries and forts in the region. He shifted his capital from Mattancherry to Thrissur, cleared the teak forests around Thekkinnakadu maidan and conceived the idea of Thrissur Pooram as a solution to squabbling temple priests. Thereby, he catalysed the revival of Thrissur, a historic place deeply entrenched in spiritual, religious and cultural pursuits, into a thriving cultural capital. After all, the ancient town was a centre of Sanskrit studies and legend has it that Adi Shankaracharya, one of the greatest philosopher saints of all time, was born after his parents prayed at the Vaddakkunatthan temple.

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To most people, the very name Thrissur evokes images of the Pooram festival in the month of Medam (April-May) marked by throngs of people, caparisoned elephants with gilded headdresses on their trunks, hypnotic rhythms of the melam, an orchestra of drums, pipes, horns and cymbals and the inescapable deafening thunder of fireworks. For a whole week, the city is gripped by the frenzy of this mother of all festivals, a tradition that has been nurtured for over two centuries. The Pooram builds to a crescendo over the last 36 hours, when it is believed that the Gods and Goddesses gather from neighbouring shrines for an annual assembly or celebration at the Vaddakkunnathan Temple to pay obeisance to Shiva.

Each year, the Pooram witnesses a surge of tourists who wish to experience what UNESCO calls “one of the most spectacular festival events on the planet”. Once that is ticked off the checklist, people rush off to the famous Krishna temple in Guruvayur or expectedly to Cochin and beyond to indulge in signature Kerala experiences – beaches, backwaters, Ayurveda, houseboats and wildlife. After an exhilarating Pooram, spent and hungover Thrissur is left to hobble back to its humdrum routine…

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Yet, Thrissur is Kerala’s best kept secret. If you tarried a while longer, the district slowly unfolds itself to reveal a world of rare encounters and experiences. Over a week, guided by our enthusiastic tour manager Jackson, we made day visits to key attractions – the Sakthan Thampuran Palace, Lourdes Cathedral and Mural Art Museum in town, the informative hi-tech Vaidyaratnam Ayurveda Museum at Thaikkattussery near Ollur, the weaving town of Kuthampully with its kasavu saris, mundus and dhotis, the torrential Athirapally and Vazhachal waterfalls in the forests of Chalakudy, stunning kole (paddy) wetlands, the elephant camp at Punnathur Kotta and the Muziris trail to the ancient port where the Roman temple of Augustus once stood.

We were ushered into unique shrines like Arnos Padri Church with its painted ceiling and depiction of the devil, a Jesus statue in padmasana at Palayur, the Naal ambalam (Four Temple) circuit of individual shrines dedicated to Ram, Lakshman, Shatrughan and Bharat (his Koodalmanikyam temple being the most important) and Kodungallur Bhagavathy Temple where devotees hurl abuses to awaken the deity during the Bharani Mahotsav. And each evening, as the sun went down, the stage would come alive with performances…

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Thrissur’s love for the arts is legendary. Bound by the Bharatapuzha river (or Nila) to the north, where Kalaripayattu and other art forms were practiced and perfected on its sandy banks, Cheruthuruthy is just a 1-hr drive from town. We enter the precincts of Kerala Kalamandalam where the legacy of poet Padmabhushan Vallathol Narayana Menon reverberates in classrooms. Founded in 1930 on the banks of the (the legendary Bharatapuzha) to resuscitate classical arts like Kathakali, Koodiyattam and Mohiniattam which were threatened under colonial rule, Kalamandalam followed the age-old gurukul tradition, a residential school to impart training in the arts by expert teachers.

If Kathakali is a buzzword today and the painted green mask or studded wooden plaque, a familiar souvenir from Kerala, we have Vallathol Narayana Menon to thank. For way back in the 50s, he spoke of the greatness of the art on his sojourns abroad. Today in the temple-like environs of the deemed University, visitors are given glimpses of performing arts and an intimate understanding of the special costumes, make-up and expressions besides music.

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Day with the Masters, an enriching half-day guided tour around the kalaris (classrooms) and museum with presentation of classical dances like Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam and Kuchipudi, the dramatic Kathakali, Koodiyattam and Thullal and demonstrations of typical instruments like Chenda, Maddalam, Mizhavu, Thimila and Mridangam and Carnatic vocal styles. As light filters through the wooden slats of the Koothambalam, the synchrony of classical dance movements creates an alluring vision.

At Natanakairali, in the tiny village of Irinjalakuda south of Thrissur, classical dramatic art traditions that predate 2nd Century treatises like the Tamil epic Silapadigaram still survive. While Kathakali, Mohiniattam and Kalaripayattu are well known traditions of Kerala, Koodiyattam and Mudiyattam are among the rare arts recognised by UNESCO as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

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Koodiyattam is a 2000 year old classical dramatic performance of Sanskrit and South Indian theatre with a fascinating vocabulary of physical movement, hand gestures, ocular acting, costumes and choreography. Watching a Koodiyattam performance leaves you spellbound with its sheer power and intensity. Surprisingly, this esoteric art that was confined to the temple and later only for the elite for centuries, has found a receptive audience among locals and viewers the world over, for the last three decades.

G Venu, performer, guru, scholar and fine exponent of Kathakali and Koodiyattam has worked tirelessly to preserve the latter form of Sanskrit theatre and other such dying traditions of puppet theatre like PavaKathakali (glove puppetry) , TholpavaKoothu (shadow/leather puppetry drama dedicated to Goddess Bhadrakali), Kakkarissi Natakam (satirical folk theatre), etc. Through training programs, documentation and publications, the painstaking task of reviving gems of temple theatre has been well underway since the 1970s.

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That a culture and spirit for satire existed eons ago is evident in Chakyar Koothu. Stories abound of how a mizhavu (copper drum) player dozed off during a performance and when ridiculed by the audience, returned in a strange new attire to create Chakyar Koothu, a solo act narrating scenes from the puranas, making social commentary while taking potshots at the crowd. It was probably the earliest form of improv stand-up comedy! Another branch of Koodiyattam, the Nangiar Koothu staged only within the temple in the past, underlines the role of women in society; its very presence demonstrates how platforms for equal opportunity existed in early society to recognize and express talent.

Perhaps one of most captivating treasures of Thrissur is Paavakathakali, a very unusual form of hand puppetry that combines paava (puppets), katha (storytelling) and kali (play/theatre) originally performed by Andipandaram or wandering performers hailing from Andhra Pradesh. Their origins can be traced to Bommanuru in Palakkad and the art form itself is several centuries old. In a lamp-lit atmosphere, the performers remain on stage in full view of the audience as music takes over and they perform finger magic, making the glove puppets come alive with dramatic flourish.

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The Guruvayur Institute of Mural Art has carved a niche for itself by preserving a bold individualistic style of mural painting that could have become extinct. When a fire broke out in the temple sanctum in 1970, it charred 3 walls bearing fabulous ancient mural paintings. The need to save this style of art arose during the restoration when only a few trained artists came forward for the task. Under the leadership of master artist Mammiyur Krishnankutty Nair, the Guruvayur Devaswom established a gurukul to train future generations of artists through a five year diploma.

Today, one can enter the humble gurukul near the temple to watch and interact with students painting divine masterpieces using a typical colour palette of organic and vegetable pigments with great intricacy and precision. You can also buy finished artworks here. Like painting, wood sculpture and pottery too, still thrives in Thrissur. In a few quiet lanes and in the courtyards of little unnumbered homes at Kumbharagramam, you find artisans squeezing mounds of clay into exquisite pots and earthenware to be fired in rustic kilns and master craftsmen chiselling trunks of wood into elephants and idols.

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Back at the Thekkinnakadu maidan it is evening. As two herds of mighty elephants line-up, people gather around to witness a strange pachyderm face-off that has taken place over the centuries during the Pooram. As the bedecked elephants twirl and tuck tufts of grass into their mouths with apparent nonchalance, quietly observing the crowds, their riders prepare for a competition of sorts. A large band of bare chested musicians clad in pristine dhotis enter the fray at the centre and the “Pandimelam” or traditional orchestra begins.

Soon the low hypnotic bellow of horns and pipes blends with the clang of cymbals and roll of drumbeats. The music is set to a mathematical rhythmic cycle based on 7 beats and provides an unbroken soundtrack for the elephant parade. Atop the elephants, men deftly raise vibrant parasols on tall poles for display and swiftly exchange it for even more exotic ones as peacock fan-bears and men wielding ceremonial whisks of yak-tail tufts wave them in the air with choreographed moves. Two of the oldest or tallest elephants bear the main temple deities. This continues for over two and half hours!

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As more people gravitate towards the sound of a chenda or traditional Kerala drum, percussion virtuoso Padmashri Peruvanam Kuttan Marar, the leader of the 300-member ensemble smiles benignly. The melam builds to a deafening crescendo and the air is charged by the frenzied rendition of the performers drawing the crowds into a musical trance. They say you can recognize a Thrissurian in a crowd because he’s the one who can’t stand still…. when the melam is on, he involuntarily raises his hand and sways to its rhythm.

We realised that dusk had turned into night only when rustic oil torches were brought out to light up the arena. As the tongues of fire swept out, the gilded headdresses on the elephants gleamed bright with their eyes mirroring the flickering flames. When the music stopped, the fireworks began – obliterating the sky with starbursts and ear-shattering explosions, announcing that Thrissur remains Kerala’s most celebrated centre of culture.

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Fact File

Getting there: Well connected by road and rail, Thrissur is just 52 km from Kochi International Airport. Jet Airways flies daily to Kochi.

Where to Stay: Thrissur has several city hotels like Joys Palace, Pooram International, Merlin International, Pearl Regency and the swanky Lulu International Convention Centre. River Retreat is the perfect base at Cheruthuruthy while Rainforest Athirappally offers rooms with a stunning view of the falls. Rejuvenate yourself with Ayurveda at the Kadappuram Beach Resort on the coast or at the heritage healing centre Niramayam at Cherpu.

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When to go: The Kochi-Muziris Biennale will be held between 12 December 2014 and 29 March, 2015 making it a great time to visit the region. Held at multiple locations across Kochi and Kodungallur, the biennale will showcase art, cultural programs and a 100 day film festival. The big ticket festivities kick off with Kodungallur Bharani Utsavam in March-April and the Thrissur Pooram in April-May, followed immediately by the Arattupuzha pooram.

For planning a tour, visit www.thrissurperuma.org, www.thrissurdtpc.com, www.kochimuzirisbiennale.org

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the Cover Story in the December 2014 issue of JetWings International magazine.

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